Portrait of Federica Sala
On the occasion of the contemporary art fair MiArt, which was recently held in Milan, Made in Town encountered consultant and curator Federica Sala, co-founder of PS Design Consultants. Over the course of this informal interview, she references her vocation and takes stock of the evolving particularities of the design sector, both in France and Italy.
"A good designer in general is somebody who has a good idea and who also already knows how to bring things together to put it into production."
– Federica Sala
Pascal Gautrand: MiArt appointed you curator of the design section; how did this project develop?
Federica Sala: This is the eighteenth anniversary of MiArt but the first time that they have welcomed a design section. It was the wish of the new director, Vincenzo De Bellis, because Milan represents excellence in design and the furniture fair is always the place where editors and businesses visit from the world over to present their new creations. Even if there are many important expos like Maison & Objet or the international design and interior architecture salon in Cologne, the innovations are always presented in Milan. So the idea was to consecrate two weeks to excellence in contemporary creation in Milan, and this would not have been possible without incorporating design.
PG: The idea of the unique piece is common to art and design – do you think this explains the connection between the two fields?
FS: In terms of art-design, the story begins in Italy even if it quickly develops afterwards in France. The first galleries to propose limited series, such as the Memphis group founded by Ettore Sottass Jr., were born in Milan in the 1980s. That is to say, it's true that this idea of unique pieces, limited series and editions was very much applied in France thanks to the modernist movement gallery and in particular thanks to Pierre Staudenmeyer, to whom a Paris retrospective was dedicated celebrating his 25-year long career. At the time, his gallery was named Néotù, and it was thanks to him that Italian designers on the borderline between art and design, like Andrea Branzi for example, developed on an international scale as well as within France.
PG: What is the specificity of Italian design in relation to the French approach?
FS: In Italy, the notion of design is always closely linked to industry, even if the term "design" was born in this country – in large part because it was the place where editors and agencies placed themselves – we cannot put forth an "Italian design," strictly speaking. Design is, before everything else, an international discipline, as we witness clearly in the new generations of artists. At one time, even if design was characterized already by its international edge, it was nevertheless dominated by Italians, but now we find design editors scattered throughout the world. It was important, then, for Milan to take into consideration the inevitable artistic aspect of design, which works precisely across this double-branch: on one hand, industry, and on the other, unique pieces, pieces made-to-order or limited editions.
Meanwhile, communication has become increasingly important and many editors now produce limited editions in the framework of marketing. Kartell does chairs with Missoni, this year Cassina presented pieces created in partnership with Karl Lagerfeld. There is growth across all disciplines: fashion, design, etcetera. Last year, Vitra reissued the furniture of Jean Prouvé in collaboration with G-Star denim.
In our current society, there is a desire to treat furniture like a fashion object in the sense where one buys an object corresponding to oneself, in particular in Italy where the tradition of the home is very strong and influences all sectors. In this spirit, there is on one hand the communication aspect, marketing and co-branding, and on the other hand there are the values of savoir-faire and technology.
If at their roots, designers were architects by training – and so conscious of the constraints of engineering – the many more-or-less recognized design schools that have developed throughout the world have little-by-little produced designers dependent upon computer technology and 3D software that favor purely virtual modes of conception. As a result, in the 1990s, the design sector found itself confronted by a huge practical problem because the role of the designer could not be limited to drawing a nice form that makes the rounds through the blogosphere but must also allow for an engineer to transform the project into a reproducible object. A good designer in general is somebody who has a good idea and who also already knows how to bring things together to put it into production.
PG: In Italy, how are links being made between design, the artisan, and industry?
FS: Generally, as the name indicates, "industrial design" has to be at the service of industry. A good designer for example knows how to economize wood if they are making wooden chairs, knows how to adapt an object so that it may be released in large edition or so that it can be broken down and stacked for less costly transportation. Responding to products and market position, the designer has to known how to take into account all of these parameters.
Behind this, an industry is needed that knows how to transform drawings on a practical level. If you visit Alessi, it's interesting because the offices and the studios are directly underneath the workshops transforming steel and other materials: there is a sort of continuity between designers and producers.
The artisan has arrived after because they have had a very significant development in a technical sense (note: rotational molding invention by an Italian engineer, a technique very often used in plastic) and with this loss of the designer project. In the 1990s, we are witnessing a comeback of good design and good designers capable of drawing a project and especially capable of working with craftsmen. The exchange between artisan and designer is very important: if we take the example of Giò Ponti's Superleggera edited by Cassina, it is a true feat achieved thanks to a craftsman in Brianza (note: Brianza is a district in Lombardia, near Milan, where one of the largest concentrations of editors and design producers can be found.). Currently, it is in restoring the designer-artisan relationship to the heart of education that many large design schools are making an impact.
Moreover, in the field of art-design, there is a notable return to sculpture as a technique. In this case, regardless of the style of creation, the role of the designer manifests at once as artist and fabricator. Take for example the case of Maarten Baas, the Dutch designer, who himself produces pieces in his studio. The young designers who work with him do manual labor, much like in the studios of painters and sculptors during the Renaissance. The series of burnt furniture: it was they who burned the pieces. For the furniture in synthetic clay: it was they also who heated the material and sculpted it. It is typical of the new generation. Maarten Baas has straddled industrial design and art-design, he works at once to develop industrial projects and personal artisan productions: in terms of the latter, he conceives of unique pieces or limited editions that he creates in his own studio and which are distributed by editors. Even if they are produced in series in the sense that they are the same piece of furniture without any radical differences between them, they do not come from an industrial process but from artisanal labor.
Michele De Lucchi, meanwhile, has developed his own collection, Collezioni Privata. He emphasizes artisan research, taking wood and glass as his principle materials. He has nevertheless more than one string to his bow, as he is principally known for his bestseller: the Tolomeo lamp, sold by the hundreds of thousands, far from the idea of artisanal production. As a general rule in his work the borders between architecture, sculpture and design are quite fine: he notably sculpted himself a series of seven platters in wood, unique pieces presented in 2009 at an exhibition in Milan which once hung on the wall like paintings revealed the façades of buildings. Naturally, buyers of this type of object are part of a sort of collector's sensibility and are more akin to art lovers than design consumers.
Contemporary designs conceive more and more in parallel with artisanship: this phenomenon, which seems to be spreading, impacts with a richness and heterogeneity in the design sector and effects a porosity between art, industry and artisanship.
Made in Metz. A graduate from the Institut de Commerce de Nancy (ICN Business School), where he attended a cross-disciplinary management program dedicated to the luxury industry, he initiated a study as part of his master’s thesis on the role of craftsmanship in this specific sector and its ability to contribute to the emergence of new production systems. It is when working at the Institut National des Métiers d’Art that he discovered the true wealth of the French heritage. He now wishes to educate the public about local know-how from all over the world and their cultural roots, through a selection of diverse projects in the fields of fashion, design and art.
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